For the best part of the past decade, Chris Waddell has been photographing all of the UK’s remaining pleasure piers, from Scotland right down to Cornwall. It hasn’t always been plain sailing but, this weekend, the labour of love culminates in the publication of a 140 page hardback book of the collection. We quizzed him about the project…
How did you start in photography?
It was part of my graphic design course, and I always enjoyed it as a hobby, but it became more serious 16 years ago when I became a self-employed designer. I’d spent years retouching other people’s work and felt it was time to take the shots myself.
Where did the “piers” concept come from?
I’d had a connection with pleasure piers from a young age. I was born near The Mumbles, grew up in Penarth and then lived near Brighton. All locations with surviving piers. Having bagged a great early morning shot of Bournemouth pier in 2008, I decided to do some research and discovered The Pier Society (founded by Sir John Betjeman) which has a great resource about surviving and lost piers. As an adult, I have come to love the idea that piers can give us a unique moment to fantasise about other times and places. The sea looks infinite from the end of many a pier — a place to stand and let your imagination run free… This defines my love of pleasure piers and the reason I then set about visiting all of them.
Bournemouth pier, June 2008
They’re undoubtedly romantic — but I’d imagine achieving the goal of photographing them all hasn’t been easy?
Inevitably, since starting the project, I have found other photographers have had the same idea. I have stubbornly avoided engaging with other collections to avoid their influence, whether positive or negative. If I had spent time watching too closely I’d have given up — and there have been times I have almost done just that for many reasons. During the process, I have had an unrelated nervous breakdown, gone deaf in one ear and developed tinnitus in both, which at times is louder than normal conversation. My family have remained supportive and I have bounced back from each setback with renewed determination. Lately, keeping busy with this project has proved to be a great distraction from the tinnitus; after all, there’s nothing like the lapping or crashing of the sea against a pier to mask the constant hiss…
You’ve said this project has made you feel like you’re starting from scratch with photography. Have you, willingly or otherwise, developed a personal style?
I am uncomfortable with the idea of having a photographic style although others may say, rightly or wrongly, I have developed one. I wonder if maintaining a style represents a kind of formulaic, personal cliché — an easy repetition of more of the same for one’s social media accounts? My approach to the book, I hope, is as eclectic as the piers themselves; hence the mix of monochrome and colour throughout. I prefer to shoot in response to conditions rather than wait for the conditions to suit an apparent style — and to shoot with immediacy rather than labour over a tripod and filter set up.
Aside from Piers Morgan (obviously), which are your favourite piers?
Some unexpected ones. I love Deal (Pier of the Year, 2008) for its simple, brutalist construction, and Walton-on-the-Naze, which sweeps round in a dramatic curve at the end toward the lifeboat mooring. I’m drawn to those with interesting histories too; many were breached during WWII to prevent them being used as landing stages by potential invading forces. Some have since been reconstructed, including Herne Bay — though that was later demolished again, leaving the landing stage and the pier head.
Herne Bay pier, September 2011
Now you’ve reached the end of the End of the Piers, do you have any other plans in the pipeline?
This project feels like a brief punctuation mark in my constant exploration of photography. A decade-long, first chapter of something bigger and better.
“The End of the Pier Show” is available to buy through Chris’ web site: http://www.waddelldigital.co.uk/the-end-of-the-pier-show